When Charles Mingus was recording for Impulse, recording staff had to practically beg the bassist and composer to provide a title for one unnamed cut. It was an aggressive big band chart, inspired more by hot jazz and the Savoy Sultans‘ layered arrangements than the post-bop and progressive politics Mingus is now known for. He finally decided upon “II BS,” with the second part of the title referencing exactly what dirtier minds might think:
Charles Mingus: independent thinker, revolutionary artist and smartass, honoring prewar jazz as well as the centuries-old tradition of musicians not knowing what the hell to call they do.
Part of the power of instrumental music (and even some opera) is that it doesn’t have to represent anything other than music, literally the sound of itself. Jazz and classical are two approaches that thrive on notes running, dancing, sighing and just being notes, rather than signifiers of something else.
Knowing that the descending fifths in the second movement of Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor are spelling out the name of his beloved Clara adds biographical insight, but the notes still work on their own:
Titles like “concerto, symphony” or “sonata” might not offer any meaning, nor do they circumscribe it. Audiences are free to understand the music as a painting in sound, a personal narrative or an experiment with aesthetic issues such as melody, harmony, rhythm, form, etc.
Jazz makes titling slightly harder. Other than the occasional “Blues in C Sharp Minor,” “Jam Session in A minor” or “Head and Blowing for Sax and Rhythm” might sound too formal. Jazz also often says more through non-verbal means than any of the lyrics attached to its source material. How many jazz listeners know the lyrics to “Stardust?” After hearing it on Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, or Artie Shaw’s arrangement, how many still care?
Yet records still need names, so Mingus and other musicians before and since slap a title onto what they do and let the music speak for itself. What else is “II BS” supposed to “mean?” What would one call what the California Ramblers’ deliver here:
It features an irresistibly strutting rhythm, underneath a simple but effective theme, with great solos by Adrian Rollini and the Dorsey brothers as well as Red Nichols’ brilliant lead trumpet. Composer Howdy Quicksell called it “Dustin’ the Donkey,” which apparently is period slang for sex.
In the end, all we’re left with is a young man making a dick joke, and some powerful notes (in other words, two timeless concepts for the price of one).